Schools Are Banning Fact-based History Education and as a Social Studies Teacher, I'm Terrified

Administration in a school in Southlake, Texas told educators to teach "opposing" views of the Holocaust. Similar bans exist on what state lawmakers are calling "Critical Race Theory." Sari Beth Rosenberg, a high school history teacher, shares the dangerous repercussions for America's public education system and why parents should be concerned.

Overhead view of a teacher holding an open history textbook and her glasses
Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Teaching during a pandemic in schools without mask mandates is frightening enough for America's teachers. However, educators across the country are equally terrified about the very content they include in their daily lesson plans and the books they stock in their classroom libraries. These fears are a result of the so-called "Critical Race Theory" (CRT) bills getting passed in states across the country. The latest news out of Southlake, Texas last week where a school leader told teachers to balance the Holocaust books with "opposing" views is a harbinger of similar headlines to come out of states that have passed these bans on what can be taught.

Although presented otherwise, these laws have nothing to do with helping young people better understand history and current events. At a time when students are looking to their teachers to help them make better sense of the multiple pandemics facing our nation, including systemic racism, these laws are designed to silence any such conversations.

It is essential to understand the cynical origins of these laws and how they are already stifling America's education system at a time when students need more support than ever.

What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?

This theory was created by legal scholars, including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, as a framework for legal analysis. It is not taught on the K-12 level.

The main idea behind Critical Race Theory (CRT) is that race is a social construct and that racism is embedded in the U.S. legal systems and policies, including the criminal justice system, the housing market and the education system. In other words, racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice but it exists system-wide in America.

In the past year, eight Republican-led states have passed "CRT" laws and more than twenty states currently have similar bills. This is according to the Brookings Institute and Education Weekly.

If CRT Has Never Been Taught in K-12, How Are They Banning It?

Some conservatives have hijacked this legal term as a stand-in phrase to inaccurately describe everything from anti-racist education to diversity training. However, what they are really banning is teaching the indisputable fact that structural racism exists in America and they are denying the lived experiences of so many people in this nation. The K-12 curriculum in the U.S. has been historically inaccurate, retelling events from a white-washed and ethnocentric perspective. Those who back these bans are opposed to the idea that schools might finally tell a factual version of history.

The outrage over "CRT" was engineered by Republicans in an attempt to mobilize their base for the upcoming 2022 midterm elections. They have manipulated preexisting fears among some Americans that teaching about racism will damage young people. In fact, studies show that avoiding the topic is more detrimental to children. Republican-led states that have implemented these bans have also exploited a growing backlash to the renewed interest in civil rights and dismantling systemic racism sparked by the 1619 Project and the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests.

When You Ban Teaching the Truth, You Hurt Young People

The bans on teaching about true historical events are stifling critical thinking and grossly undermining young people's ability to understand complexity. If you have noticed, there are a lot of parents, as well as outside agitators, filling up school board meetings freaking out about the CRT boogie man being taught to their kids. However, there has been a dearth of young people as well as teachers in these conversations. I communicate with teachers across the country thanks to the Educator Zoom series that I host for PBS NewsHour Extra. We have had guests, including authors and educators Yohuru Williams, Ph.D. and Frederick Joseph, discuss the teaching bans with K-12 educators in order to brainstorm ways to navigate these laws.

In these discussions, I have learned the following from teachers across the country:

  1. They feel silenced and have no idea how to cover basic topics in social studies and ELA classes because the laws are so vague.
  2. They are concerned about depriving young people of the basic critical thinking skills and content necessary for excelling in college and beyond.
  3. They are considering moving to other states without these laws so they can actually teach the truth to their students.
  4. In states with laws on the books, teachers are forced to submit their lesson plans on a daily basis to be "screened for CRT."
  5. They feel as though they are being forced to choose between keeping their jobs or teaching the truth.

I am fortunate to teach at a New York City public school in a state without these "CRT" bans. Not a day goes by that I don't feel fortunate that I can educate my students, many of whom are BIPOC, about the complex story of America. I am not sure if I could continue doing my job in good consciousness if I was suddenly told I can't teach about structural racism. Or if I was forced to find opposing sides to historical events, such as slavery and the continuing impact in this country, where the opposing side simply does not exist.

So, What Happened in Texas and What Dangers Does It Expose?

On September 1st, a new law, HB 3979, went into effect in Texas that restricts discussions of race and history in schools. You can read the law here, but some "highlights" include:

  • Teachers must not discuss the concept that one race or sex is "inherently superior" to another, or that a person is responsible for past actions of members of their race.
  • Students should not feel "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual's race or sex"
  • Teachers who choose to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs "shall, to the best of their ability, strive to explore such issues from diverse and contending perspectives. Without giving deference to any one perspective."

The last bullet point is what led to this week's controversy in Southlake, Texas when Gina Peddy, Carroll Independent School District's executive director of curriculum and instruction, proposed that based on the language of Texas HB 3979, an opposing side to a book on the Holocaust should be used in class. If you listen to the audio, she mentions that this question had already come up in a previous meeting. The Carroll ISD Superintendent Lane Ledbetter has since clarified that the comments in the training, reported by NBC News, "were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history."

You Can't "Both Sides" History Without Disastrous Consequences

Thankfully the Carroll ISD Superintendent clarified that there is not an opposing side to the Holocaust, but we should all get used to headlines like this. The recent controversy in Texas exposes the dangerous flaws inherent in all the "CRT" laws. When you attempt to erase the truth in teaching, you open the door to dangerous false narratives about the past. Just as there are no "both sides" to the Holocaust, there are no "both sides" to American race-based chattel slavery, systemic racism, lynchings, the KKK, genocide of Indigenous people, and the practice of "redlining" that denied property and generational wealth to Black Americans. When faced with having to "both sides" history, most teachers are just going to choose to avoid teaching the topics altogether.

The Bottom Line

The repercussions of these restrictions will potentially damage the future of our country as we know it. Ensuring a well-informed citizenry is the essential purpose of America's public education system. These CRT bills are dismantling the very core of the purpose of public school. Ultimately, young people will get hurt the most if we continue on this perilous trajectory.

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